IUCN RED LIST FOR ECOSYSTEMS–A future tool to promote effective biodiversity conservation


India. © Rebecca Miller

Coral reefs are vanishing? What’s happening to the rain forest and mangrove swamps?–These are ecosystems which support variety of vertebrate and invertebrate organisms and provide livelihood for local residents. Theoretically, Ecosystem is a combination of living and non-living components and the interaction among these components are known as the ecological processes. Due to uncontrolled human encroachment on forests, lots of species lost their habitat and went extinct in last century. Hence, the need for risk assessment for the species’ survival came into picture in the beginning of 20th century.

The publication of first red data book on birds and mammals by IUCN in 19641 was a major stepping stone in conservation research which opened several doors for effective species protection in its wild habitat. International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red data book or commonly, IUCN Red list of threatened species is widely used by conservation biologists worldwide as a powerful scientific tool for research. Other than scientists, general people with a basic environmental knowledge are also well acquainted with this list.

We, the great human being are exploiting the nature and its resources driving the rapid decline of the eco-systems due to our never ending demand for better living. So, it is not only having detrimental effects on a single species but also hazarding the balance of whole system.  In order to secure the ecosystem services (i.e. the benefits human obtain from nature for their living) along with other major species survival in future, the Red list of Threatened Ecosystems has been proposed in World Conservation Congress in 2008.2Moreover, to improve the evaluation of global biodiversity and keeping the requirements of human in mind, the need for developing another comprehensive, easy to handle device, gave rise to this new Red List.

What is IUCN Red List of Ecosystem?

1) It is a robust scientific method to compare ecosystem status from national to global scale over time rather than focusing just on a single species.1

2) It will be able to inform different sectors such as conservation, land-use, economic investment, global environmental reporting, briefly it will actually justify the interdisciplinary approach of biodiversity conservation.1

3) It can assess terrestrial, marine, freshwater and subterranean ecosystem appropriately.1

4) It is demarcated by quantitative criteria which recognize varying levels of risk.1

5) It is also easily understandable by both general public and policy-makers.1

6) It is transparent, objective, able to use past and present data to pred
ict future and complementary to the species-list.1

Risk Categories and Criteria—–How the assessment is done?

Ecosystems are categorized based on the IUCN risk assessment criteria2,3which explore the information on reduction in geographic range2,3, restricted range2,3, environmental degradation2,3, disruption in biotic interactions2,3 and quantitative estimation of risk of ecosystem collapse2.


Fig:1This diagram describes the process of risk assessment and categorization of the sample ecosystem (Rodriguez et al 2011)

These ecosystems are categorized to the following groups followed by the assessment: collapse (CO)2,3 (Analogous to “Extinct” category in Species Red list), critically endangered (CR), endangered (EN), vulnerable (VU), near threatened (NT), least concern (LC), data deficient (DD) and not evaluated (NE). Among all the categories, Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), and Vulnerable (VU) – together, are described as threatened and topped the priority list for conservation. 1    

cat_EN-peq (1)

Categories of IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. Source: IUCN Red list of Ecosystems

Are trial cases supporting? 


Wakana, New Zealand. © Javiera Gómez

Twenty trial assessments2 have been carried out for various ecosystems in Madagascar2, Alaska2, Central Asia2 and Australia2 based on the proposed criteria and risk assessment model to check how much feasible these criteria are on a global scale. Majority of cases are well suited to the proposed criteria and model is sufficiently feasible and applicable to wide range of ecosystem types. Currently a thorough sampling is going on across the world to get more feedback on the feasibility of the proposed protocol.2

Collaboration and engagement with various national and international, governmental or Non-governmental organizations are promoting this list at global level and raising awareness among policy makers. IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM)1 and the Global Ecosystem Management Programme1 are jointly working on developing this list.

Biodiversity Conservation has always been defined as an inter-disciplinary area to work on. This list is going to be unequivocal for all sectors from policy-makers, conservation scientists to general public and can play a key role in raising awareness for sustainable living.

So, is it the perfect tool for combating biodiversity loss???

It has some ambiguities too. The major problem developers are facing in designing these criteria is to propose an operational definition of ecosystem5 and explicit classification of ecosystems across the globe. The definition and the model proposed is theoretically more defensible and not operationally so straightforward. Besides, the scale of assessment level, the attributes, threshold levels of criteria5 need thorough revision to create a strong link between ecological theories and a practical working protocol which will be applicable universally for all ecosystems and produce more accurate results.

IUCN have targeted to assess all the freshwater, marine, terrestrial and subterranean ecosystems by 20254.The major challenges4 in this ambitious target are as follows:

  • Establishment of technical and scientific capability4
  • Attaining global coverage of assessments4
  • Cataloguing and mapping all the ecosystems of the world4

To address the above mentioned problems they need strong networking of expertise worldwide and collection of detailed information using possible scientific sources to integrate and develop an understandable format for all the disciplines.

Well, actually the developers have started working on these challenges to produce a perfect assessment criteria and risk assessment model. They have joined hands with, World Data Base on Protected Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas4 to integrate their data to create a robust comprehensive data base

So, in conclusion, we can expect another advantageous tool by IUCN soon to address conservation challenges across the world, engaging multiple sectors effectively.


  1. CEM-IUCN & Provita.2012.IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. The Comission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Provita, Caracas, Venezuela. http://www.iucnredlistofecosystems.org/ [Downloaded on 6th December, 2014]
  1. Keith DA, Rodriguez JP, Rodriguez-Clark KM, Nicholson E, Aapala K, et al. (2013) Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8(5):e62111. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062111 (5th December, 2014)
  1. Rodríguez, JP etal,2011,Establishing IUCN Red List Criteria for Threatened Ecosystems, Consrervation Biology, Vol 25, No. 1, pp 21-29, DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01598.x (5th December, 2014)
  1. Rodríguez, JP etal , 2012, IUCN Red List of Ecosystems,S.A.P.I.E.N.S. Vol 5, No. 2, pp 60-70, Available from: http://sapiens.revues.org/1286 (5th Decemeber, 2014)
  1. Boitani, L. Mace, GM, & Rondinini, C 2014, Challenging the scientific foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, Conservation Letters, Vol xxx, No.00(0), pp1–7,DOI: 10.1111/conl.12111 (4th December, 2014)

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